Monday, March 25, 2013

Arshile Gorky, Abstract Expressionist

       "The moral crisis of a world in shambles..."

       Based on my instructor's lecture this morning, this was the general mindset of the artistic world in the wake of World War II. The war to end all wars (World War I) was followed by an even more destructive global conflict after twenty years of uneasy peace. A side effect of the World Wars and the Holocaust was that many artists in Europe fled to the Americas to escape persecution. One of these artists was Arshile Gorky.

       "the canvas began to appear... as an arena in which to act..."
       Gorky was a victim of the Armenian Genocide, a genocide that took place from 1915 to 1918 and nearly exterminated the Armenian population. Fleeing to New York City in America, Gorky eventually  became a part of the Surrealist movement. Gorky's involvement in the Surrealist movement led eventually to his further involvement in the Abstract Expressionist movement. The work that we were shown in class, The Liver is the Cock's Comb, is Gorky's most notable Abstract Expressionist work.

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb, oil on canvas, 6 ' 2.75" * 8' 2". 1944
        The Liver is the Cock's Comb features a wildly chaotic scene consisting of chaotic coloring and barely recognizable forms; the only discernible objects are what appear to be beaks and feathers. This is a good example of Abstract Expressionism, which builds on the Expressionist movement by expressing the artist's emotional state, but takes it a step further by forgoing realistic scenes in favor of forms and figures taken from the artist's mind. This allows Abstract Expressionism to draw on the artist's memories, experiences, and resulting emotions to put on media. Our instructor told us that The Liver is the Cock's Comb was a reflection of the trauma that Gorky was forced to endure during the Armenian Genocide: as he and his mother were sent on a death march, she died in his arms from starvation. The trauma from that incident seems evident in this work.
       My class had a healthy discussion with our instructor about the reasoning behind the title of the work. The liver is the organ in most animals that filters out toxins, and a cock's comb is the red ridge that is on a rooster's head. It can also refer to a jester's cap. Therefore, our instructor told us to look at it this way: the "liver" is a living person, and the cock's comb is the jester's cap that represents the royal fool whose job is to keep the king happy. Looking at "liver" and "cock's comb" from that perspective, it becomes apparent that the Armenian Genocide had a lasting influence on Gorky and his artistic career.
       After what happened in the Armenian Genocide, Gorky evidently found himself questioning the meaning of life, based on The Liver is the Cock's Comb. He committed suicide in 1948 in the wake of injury from a car crash and his wife's abandonment of him. Gorky's legacy was the continuation of the Abstract Expressionist movement after his death.

       For more on the Armenian Genocide, visit

       For a gallery of Gorky's works and a biography of his life, visit

       For more on Abstract Expressionism, visit


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